At home with the Society of Friends
Christopher Idle reflects on some of the distinctive aspects of Quaker worship
There are at least four reasons for going to the Quakers on an occasional Sunday morning. Yes, I know all that I am missing; believe me, I miss it. But first, I go on Remembrance Sunday to avoid the gung-ho penitence-free jingoism of your average parish church, the ‘love that asks no question’ brand of patriotism. Second, to have a bit of guaranteed silence, and a respite from the suffocation-by-words which afflicts some of our otherwise admirable gatherings. ‘Drop thy still dews of quietness’, as one of their own poets has prayed. Third, to see how the other half (or fiftieth) lives. In 1820 the gentle Charles Lamb wrote one of his celebrated a on his own Quaker experience.
And the more personal fourth reason: when one of my adult sons comes to visit. To my sorrow, he has opted out of most things Christian, but travels 500 miles to see me; since the Society of Friends is just about acceptable to both of us, that is where we go.
Food for thought
There is much food for thought, both positive and negative. My own sporadic attendances are hardly a fair sample for statistical purposes; but on well over half these occasions, one of the Friends has stood up to say how good it is to be a Quaker, with (usually) a reflection on the superiority of their style to any of the others. The same can happen among Baptists Methodists, and (for all I know) all the rest. By contrast, the only denomination I hear criticized by Anglicans is the Church of England. That is one thing which so far has kept me in the fold.
Take last time. The Speaker (a lady this morning and, as it happens, the only one to vary the hour’s silence) says that although she likes to hear the church bell as she walks down the road, she does not like being told what to say, what or when to sing, when to stand up or sit down, ‘and all that kind of thing’.
Makes you think? We know what she means, but part of what I understand as worship is precisely that freedom – yes, freedom – to join in with others, the saints of previous centuries and every continent as well as those immediately around me, in using prayers and praises, collects and creeds, which remind me that I am not alone in either time or space. I gladly submit (usually) not only to Almighty God my heavenly Father, but to those with due authority in his church and in this particular place and moment. I do not have to make it up as I go along, re-invent the wheel or start again every time. If need be I can do that for the rest of the week.
Only one stage-direction makes me wince; it is fast becoming a mandatory rubric: ‘Please sit or kneel for the prayers’. What he or she should say, of course, is ‘Please kneel or sit’. Why the quibble? Surely ‘Sit or kneel’ means ‘Sitting is the norm, but kneel if you find it helpful or if you are especially religious’. ‘Kneel or sit’ means ‘Kneeling is normal, but by all means sit if kneeling is difficult.’
But I digress. The Quakers do not kneel. What would happen if I did while among them? Nor in my experience do they sing, though usually there is a piano in the corner. Of course they have their own culture and rituals; the standing to Speak, the prescribed books on the central table, the handshake at the end. But these are unwritten codes and canons; you just need to know the way they do things.
Another half-digression, relevant to recent discussion of baptism-lite liturgies and not-very-fresh expressions. A white-skinned friend of mine was brought up in a southern African country, as a complete pagan with (surprisingly) no contact with any meaningful Christian experience or texts. Another brave friend took her along to a church service. Afterwards she explained: ‘I literally did not understand a word of it! It all seemed so weird, as if I was eavesdropping on some incomprehensible conversation in a foreign tongue. Yet these peoples seemed to believe it!’
‘Not only so, but here were my fellow countrymen and women apparently not only understanding but enjoying, even revelling in it. How odd! There must be something real going on here that is worth investigating’. So she went again the next Sunday and the next... and gradually something began to filter through, and a little more each time. The end result, as complete a conversion to Christ as you could wish for.
The moral of my tale is not that we should make our services as unintelligible as possible – though for some that would be but a small step. But there is more to worship than basic English, twitter-Speak or the colloquialisms of the day before yesterday. I also recalled that there was nothing in my Quaker experience that anyone could not immediately grasp.
The Society of Friends often seem masters of the anticlimax, not uniquely so, but the contrast between silence and Speech heightens the effect. After the often moving quietness, watching the trees or traffic through the window and meditating on peace and justice or the unspoken infinity of divine love, we bump down to earth with notices about annual meetings, committee minutes, cleaning, flowers and the state of the building fund. They are human after all.
But behold how quickly we fall into the trap of criticizing others! I must remember that it is our fellow-Anglicans we must slag off. See most Anglican periodicals, passim. Meanwhile, an unspoken vote of thanks to that anonymous saint who rings the church bell. There is a time for silence, and a time for hearing the bells. ND
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